I remember, quite a few years ago now, Jenny Shipley addressing a room and asking the question, “What is the purpose of the National Party?” The answer was: To defeat the Labour Party. National was there to be the party of Government. Ideology came a distant second to the simple joy of Being In Government.
Shipley’s Q&A came to mind during the election campaign, when Matthew Hooton locked horns in spectacular fashion with Michelle Boag on RadioLive (a copy of the audio has been helpfully archived here by Peter Aranyi at The Paepae). Hooton described Boag as “a hack” with “no political views”, given that Boag had steadfastly supported National throughout all of its ideological manifestations from Muldoon onwards.
Labour was established for a reason – the party name says it all. National was established as a vehicle to beat Labour.
That’s not to say that there aren’t many in National who do subscribe to a political ideology. National, like Labour, has its competing ideological factions: liberal v conservative, free market v Muldoonist intervention, pro-environment v farming lobby etc. Nonetheless, the party has a knack of re-inventing itself when political necessity demands it. For example, just six years after Muldoonism was comprehensively routed at the ballot box, National was a completely different beast, championing the free-market reforms begun under Roger Douglas. Likewise, just three years after Don Brash’s divisive Iwi/Kiwi campaign, National was in partnership with the Maori Party. The factions whose ideologies are out of favour may not be impressed at times, but they toe the line because Being In Power matters.
Labour, in contrast, is still working its way through the angst created by the party’s lurch to the right in the 1980s. During the Helen Clark years, it seemed that Labour had learned the lesson of not letting any one ideology have too free a rein, with Helen Clark doing her level best not to stray too far from the political centre. She was aided, of course, by the fact that at that time the hard-left ideologues stayed safely tucked away in the Alliance Party. These days, many of the factions within Labour seem more interested in a splendid defeat than a victory based on a policy platform that isn’t entirely in line with their thinking.
Now the title of this post doesn’t intend to imply that National doesn’t have a political agenda, or that Labour shouldn’t have one. Rather, that each party, as an overarching entity, shouldn’t be too wedded to a specific ideology. Political winds change, and any party that wants to succeed must tack with the wind. National’s internal factions know how to bide their time; Labour’s have been in open warfare since the demise of the Clark Government.
Can Labour’s activist base accept that some dead rats must be swallowed in order to win back power? Or will the factional infighting hand John Key and National a fourth or even fifth term?